The coffee table picture book of the upper White Nile is all drama. Across this confluence of Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda and Congo stretches the savannah and its stupefying wild creatures, bejeweled lakes, the summits of cranky volcanoes, a gash of the Rift Valley, the course of the Nile, longest river on earth, and the Mountains of the Moon, the Rwenzori. Throw in the mountain gorillas for good measure. Where else on the planet can you match drama like that?
Across this landscape Mary Kay, my wife, and I set out in a hopelessly refined VW. (How far and innocently it had strayed from its factory home in Wolfsburg, Germany!) We left the town of Bunia and soon outran the tarred road. The track led us by tiptoe along a jagged escarpment with the promise we’d find company at journey’s end – fellow teachers in the humble Congo village of Boga. At our feet lay Lake Albert and the snake-like Semliki River. To the west, the fringes of rain forest sloping down to the Congo river basin and beyond.
About noon we rounded a ridge, the car lurching violently and coming to rest on a rocky outcrop. I worked to ease the car off the offending bit of bedrock and then crawled underneath to assess damage. What I saw was not reassuring. The oil pan had taken a direct hit, and now a stream of the engine’s lifeblood was pouring out onto the rock and dust. A spare plastic container served to catch the precious oil, giving me a little time to think.
Three boys who had been herding cattle in the nearby scrub appeared and squatted at the roadside to observe this hapless muzungu (white guy). Now hours from the nearest garage or mechanic, I asked them if there were any settlements nearby. ‘Geti’, they replied, pointing to a grove of eucalyptus trees. “Asante’ (thanks), I said, as I poured the collected oil back into the engine and fled.
Drawing the car into the shade of trees, I could see this was a Catholic mission. My knock at the rectory brought a young priest to the door. He listened pastorally to my woes (it seems he had acquaintance with the bit of rock I referenced) as I explained that I might possibly repair the oil leak if I could find a swatch of leather to make a gasket. He disappeared into the back where he rummaged from room to room. After a while he reappeared with a bashful expression. He explained that he couldn’t find anything suitable except this: he held out a well-worn copy of an heirloom Bible. It was bound in soft leather. I stammered that I thought it would do admirably. He made me vow never to breathe a word of this to his superior. With a guilty glance over his shoulder he reached into his white robes, drew out a pen knife and deftly sliced the cover off holy writ.
Within the hour I had cut my gasket, stanched the leak and taken grateful leave of the priest. By sunset we were eating home-baked bread with our friends as we sat on their verandah besotted by the evening light on the valley below and on the distant hills of Uganda.
The priest’s daring – indeed, inspired – act of sacrilege has helped me think differently now of holy writ. Can there be any higher purpose for scripture than this: to help broken down travelers resume their journeys? And perhaps somewhere there is still a battered VW creeping across the dramatic high country and bush trails of Central Africa on the strength of an unseen sacred gasket. The passengers can be none the wiser for its blessing.